Just a reminder that radio stations in North Carolina and South Carolina are up next in the license renewal cycle, which means that pre-filing announcements for radio stations in these states must start on June 1st. The announcements continue on June 16, July 1, and July 16, for a total of four pre-filing announcements.
The FCC has issued a flurry of fines against broadcast stations in the past week or two. While a number of these fines were for the operation of unlicensed pirate radio stations, several of the fines were for public inspection file violations, stations broadcasting with excessive power or failing to reduce power at nighttime, or…
The FCC’s decision in its rural radio proceeding addresses numerous radio issues – some of which seem to provide a solution in search of a problem. In an era where the President has called for agencies to review their decisions to access how they will affect businesses and job creation, some aspects of this rural radio decision appear to be moving in the opposite direction – imposing new hurdles on broadcasters trying to improve their operational facilities. While the FCC in this decision adopted largely uncontested rules that would promote the development of new radio stations on Tribal lands, the Commission also adopted rules making it harder for radio stations to move from more rural areas into more urban ones – rule that were almost universally condemned by broadcasters. The decision also restricted the ability of FM translators to “hop” from the commercial to the noncommercial band and vice versa, and adopted rules that codified the determination of how AM applications are determined to be “mutually exclusive” when filed in the same window for new or major change applications. The changes to the procedures for consideration of AM and FM station allotment and movement are summarized below. The other changes made in this proceeding will be discussed in a subsequent post on this blog.
Easily the most controversial of the decisions made by the Commission in this proceeding was the conclusions reached as to the movement of AM and FM radio stations from more rural areas into more urbanized ones. We wrote about some of the concerns raised by broadcasters last week. Many of the new rules and policies adopted by the Commission were ones feared by broadcasters – though many of the policies are still undefined, and how they are enforced may well determine their ultimate impact. That impact may well take years to sort out. Regardless of the ultimate impact on the actual movement of stations, there is no question that these rules will require far more paperwork from broadcasters seeking to allot new channels and from those seeking to change the cities of license of existing stations, and open more moves to challenge, making the process slower and more expensive.
At the FCC meeting next week, the Commission will be considering an item dealing with radio stations that serve rural areas, and the ability of licensees to make technical modifications to those stations that would change the communities which they serve. While, as we wrote last week, most of the attention of broadcasters has centered on the television issues to be considered at the meeting as the Commission is to begin an inquiry on the retransmission consent process. The rural radio issue poses real concerns for radio operators – especially those contemplating a move of a radio station from a community outside of a metropolitan area to one in a metro. In the name of protecting service to rural areas, the Commission may well restrict minority groups, specialty programmers, and other new entrants from bringing new services to metropolitan areas – permanently entrenching those companies who currently have major market stations as the only competition in those markets. A proposal to protect service to rural areas may well have the impact of decreasing diversity in large markets.
In virtually every large market, there is little or no potential to add new channels for FM service both because of interference protections that need to be accorded to stations in the market and because of protections to stations outside of the market but close enough to be short-spaced to any potential station in the metro area. In some cases, creative engineering has found ways for some of these non-metro stations to be moved into the metropolitan area, or at least close enough to provide some service to those markets. "Move-in stations" have allowed new entrants, some with specialized programming, to provide service to large cities – when such entrants could never afford the price of an existing in-market station, even if one was for sale. Even "rim shots", those move-ins that don’t provide full coverage of a metro area, may be very worthwhile for groups with unique formats (religion, Spanish language, and other targeted programming) trying to reach a small audience that is not otherwise going to get service in such markets.
Only last month, we wrote about the proposal of a consulting engineer for an across the board power increase for AM stations so that they could overcome the effects of interference from all the electromagnetic devices now existing in our modern world that, while making our lives easier, interferes with the signal of AM stations, particularly…
A petition was recently filed at the FCC proposing to allow all AM stations to increase to 10 times their current power in order to overcome the effects of interference that has grown up in most urban areas from the operation of all sorts of electronic equipment, fluorescent lights and other devices that simply did not exist when AM power levels were first established. The petition was drafted by an engineer, who argues that, as the amount of background noise from all sorts of electronic devices has increased, so has the noise on the AM band. He believes that the only way to make the AM signal usable is to vastly increase power on all stations. As the stations would maintain their relative power levels towards each other, he claims that there would not be increased interference between AM stations – but that the increased power levels would overcome the background noise. However, because of AM skywave issues, the petition suggests that nighttime power levels remain at their current levels.
How realistic is this proposal? The petition recognizes that, in border areas, the power increase could not happen without international coordination and the amendment of existing treaties. But, given the proposed high power for AM stations and the cumulative effect that their signals can have on distant stations, this increase could seemingly affect international AM stations even if the US stations increasing power are far from the border. However, the use of AM stations has been decreasing in some countries – in Canada, a number of AM stations have already ceased operating, so maybe the international implications could be overcome given enough time.
In a recent decision, the FCC made clear that analog FM translators can rebroadcast the signal of a HD digital multicast channel from a commonly owned FM station. For months, broadcasters have been introducing "new" FM stations to their communities via translators rebroadcasting HD-2 signals which are broadcast digitally on a primary FM station, and available only to those who have purchased HD radio receivers. In the decision that was just released, the Commission’s staff rejected an objection to the use of an FM translator taking a signal that can only be heard on a digital HD Radio and turning it into an analog signal capable of being received on any FM receiver. In this case, the broadcaster rebroadcast his AM station on the FM HD station so that it could then be rebroadcast on the FM translator. But, even if the HD multicast channel was a totally independent station that could otherwise only be heard on an HD digital radio, it could be rebroadcast on the FM translator and received by anyone with an FM radio in the limited area served by the translator station.
The Commission did make clear, however, that a broadcaster cannot use another station owner’s HD multicast channel and rebroadcast that on a translator if the broadcaster already owned the maximum number of stations allowed by the multiple ownership rules. In other words, if a broadcaster is allowed by the multiple ownership rules to own 4 FM stations in a market, it could put a fifth (low power) FM signal in that market through the use of an FM translator rebroadcasting one of its own HD multicast signals. However, if it had not itself converted its FM stations to digital so that it had its own multicast abilities, it could not do a time brokerage agreement and program the multicast signal of another broadcaster in town who had installed the digital equipment needed to do such multicasts. An LMA or time brokerage agreement with another station for use of an HD multicast channel counts for multiple ownership purposes in the same way that such a programming agreement would if it provided for programming of a primary analog FM station.
A year ago, the FCC approved the use of a computer modeling technique, known as "moment method modeling", to allow certain AM stations to do Proofs of Performance of directional antenna patterns without the costly and time-consuming process of proofing the antenna performance through the use of actual field strength measurements. …
Last week, we wrote about the FCC fining stations for a number of violations found at the studios of some broadcast stations. In these same cases, the FCC also found a number of technical violations at the tower sites of some of the same stations. Issues for which fines were issued included the failure to have an locked fence around an AM station’s tower, the failure of stations to be operating at the power for which they were authorized, and the failure to have a station’s Studio Transmitter Link operating on its licensed frequency.
An issue found in two case was the failure to operate at the power specified on the station’s license. In one case, an AM station simply seemed to not be switching to its nighttime power – in other words, at sunset, it was not reducing power from the power authorized for its daytime operations. The second case was one where another AM station was not switching to its nighttime antenna pattern after dark. In that case, there were apparently issues with the nighttime antenna but, rather than request special temporary authority from the FCC to operate with reduced power until the problem was fixed, the FCC notes that the station apparently just kept operating with its daytime power. An STA is not difficult to obtain when there is a technical issue (as the FCC does not want stations going dark if it can be avoided), and some effort is made to specify a power that avoids interference to other stations. So, if faced with technical problems, request authority for operations that are different from those authorized by the station’s license until those problems can be fixed, or risk a fine from the Commission.
The threat from the recent fires to the tower farm on Mount Wilson from which many of the radio and television stations serving the Los Angeles area operate highlight the need for broadcasters to have an emergency plan in the event that some local catastrophe affects their tower site. The fact that this fire comes near to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, where many broadcasters lost power, but where others where able to provide a lifeline to their communities, reminds broadcasters that emergencies can strike anywhere in the country, and broadcasters need to be ready. The FCC’s Public Notice issued this week, adopting special procedures for stations in the area affected by the fire, demonstrate that the FCC is ready to work with broadcasters to provide service in the time of a widespread disaster, relaxing many of its normal rules. The FCC has been very good in helping stations in the event of a mass disaster – even helping broadcasters during Katrina cut through the red tape of other agencies in order to assure their continued operation. But broadcasters need to familiarize themselves with the rules about emergency operations, and be ready to deal with a more isolated disaster that may not receive enough attention for the FCC to, on its own, relax these rules.
One of the rules highlighted by the FCC’s public notice is Section 73.1250(f) of the Commission’s Rules, which allows an AM station to operate at night with its daytime power in the event of an emergency. As many AMs operate only during daylight hours, and others routinely reduce power at night or use a directional antenna that restricts radiation in directions which may contain significant populations, this ability to continue to operate with daytime power and antenna pattern at night can allow a station to fully serve its community in times of emergency. However, a broadcaster taking advantage of this provision needs to observe the requirements of the rule. First, it must notify the FCC that it is operating under this rule within 48 hours of beginning to do so. If the station causes irreparable interference to another station, it may be forced to curtail such operations. Moreover, the operation must be on a noncommercial basis (apparently to limit any financial incentive for a station to abuse this provision). And finally, one issue not addressed in the FCC’s public notice about the Southern California fires, the use is only permitted if there is no other full-time service "serving the public need." Obviously, that last clause is open to interpretation, but it would certainly seem to preclude an AM daytimer co-owned and simulcasting an FM station that covers the same are from suddenly operating at night.